- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

By Peter Krass
John Wiley & Sons, $35, 541 pages, illus.

Consider the genes of this genius: Andrew Carnegie had the blood of Celts and Vikings fire and ice. No wonder that he became such a charming and generous plunderer. Carnegie was born, dirt poor, into a Scottish family of weavers noted for their eccentricity and their radical, anti-monarchist beliefs. The year was 1835, when the Industrial Revolution was overturning lives in Scotland and forcing mass migrations to the New World. The results of that convulsive era come to life in "Carnegie" by Peter Krass, the first biography of Andrew Carnegie in decades.
Mr. Krass, an experienced writer on business subjects, uses diaries, letters, and ledgers kept by people close to Carnegie both friends and enemies to parse the personality of this extraordinary man. He explains business machinations that brought Andrew Carnegie his wealth, a fortune that translated into modern dollars would have been twice the size of Bill Gates' wealth today. "I want to congratulate you," said J. P. Morgan to Andrew Carnegie, "on being the richest man in the world."
The author also evens a personal score. His great-grandfather labored in Carnegie's steel mills, died early, and is buried near Carnegie, Pa. Thus Mr. Krass has a sympathy for Carnegie's badly paid workers. He vividly reports on labor relations the grotesque accidents when men fell into vats of molten iron, the pitched battles between laborers and Pinkerton guards. But he balances those events with the story of Carnegie's huge philanthropies. (An admiring and competitive John D. Rockefeller wrote the steel magnate, "You have already given away more money than any man living.")
As a boy in Scotland, young Andra, as his family called him, went to a one-teacher school. Bright, small for his age (as an adult, Carnegie barely measured 5 feet 3 inches), he was taunted by his classmates as teacher's pet. He would always inspire envy.
When his father's damask-weaving trade went bad, the family sailed for the New World (a 50-day voyage on a square-rigged ship) and for more abject poverty in Pittsburgh. Schooling was a luxury beyond the family means, so Andy as he styled himself now at age 13 went to work as a "bobbin boy" in a cotton mill, earning $1.20 a week for 12-hour days. Mr. Krass explains the family dynamics of the Carnegies the dispirted father, the strong-willed mother, the bullied-but-protected younger brother. Andy worked his way up to clerk, to bookkeeper, to telegraph operator and a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Because he was a working boy, Andy was permitted the free use of a small endowed library in Pittsburgh. He read voraciously and would never forget what libraries could do. His friendships with other working boys in those years would also command his future loyalty. When the Pennsylvania Railroad introduced new devices iron bridges, gas lighting, stoves to heat the passenger cars Andy kept pace. He found a man with a plan for a sleeping car and arranged a sale to the railroad and was awarded a one-eighth interest in the sleeping car company.
By 1863, his dividends brought more than $5,000 a year, "the first considerable sum I ever made," as he reported. "Blessed be the man who invented sleep." He saved and invested his dividends.
With his promotions in the railroad business, Carnegie made innovations. He hired women as telegraph operators (he felt they would be more reliable) so that when the government drafted men for the Civil War, Carnegie's women telegraphers already were at work. Since he had paid for another man to serve in the Army in his stead, Carnegie was able to speculate in the war economy. He invested in oil, iron, and in a bridge-building concern with his own Pennsylvania Railroad as a customer, but eventually, he settled down with a careful focus: "Put all good eggs in one basket and then watch that basket." That basket was steel.
Carnegie succeeded in steel by introducing the manufacturing techniques of an English inventor named Henry Bessemer, a man he met on one of his many trips visiting old friends and relatives in Scotland. He maintained his contacts with the Old World, rewarded old friends and always showed a talent for discovering talent. But his personal relations were never easy. He badgered his partners and sometimes parted with them bitterly. As a consummate salesman, he could charm and flatter a customer but he was sharply critical of anyone who gambled or drank.
Although an outspoken agnostic, Carnegie was squeamishly prudish in dealing with women. (Peter Paul Rubens he dismissed as "only a painter of fat, vulgar women," and in his libraries and museums, he insisted that nude statues be suitably draped). He lived with his mother until her death, and only then did he marry at age 51.
His business practices were creative. Carnegie developed vertical integration, a corporate structure that permitted his control of a product from raw matierial to its finished form. He promoted employees from within his organization, and boasted that J.P. Morgan "buys his partners, I grow mine."
Sometimes, through mergers, Carnegie also bought a partner for example, Henry Clay Frick, known as "the cruelest employer in the industry" of producing coke. Their association would cost Carnegie much of his own reputation in labor relations. Though he had broken his share of strikes and unions, Carnegie had fostered a reputation as a benign employer. He became a villain in the public eye with a battle at his Homestead Steel Works.
Mr. Krass explains the background for this event, the unrest among Hungarian immigrants ("Huns") working in the mill, the careful plans to bring in Pinkerton guards, the building of a fence that would make the mill a veritable fortress.
Things didn't work out that way. Armed workers met the arriving Pinkerton men, shots were fired by both sides, and headlines next day proclaimed "BLOODY WORK AT HOMESTEAD … TWENTY KILLED." Although Homestead was not the costliest strike of the era, it darkened the Carnegie name for years.
Andrew Carnegie's philanthropies were not undertaken as a public relations ploy, though they eventually had that effect. He had for years given libraries to communities, starting with one in his native Scotland. Carnegie gave only the buildings; communities had to buy the books and maintain the place. In all, Carnegie gave some 3,000 libraries across the nation.
As the doting but inattentive father of one daughter, born when Carnegie was 61, he had no ambitions for a dynasty. During his long retirement years, he labored at giving away his fortune. He spent plenty on palatial estates in the United States and Scotland, but his goal was to leave the world a better place.
He wanted to share his love of literature. (He once smugly said of his friend William Vanderbilt, "I would not exchange his millions for my knowledge of Shakespeare.") He brazenly cultivated friendships with literary lions like Mark Twain, Matthew Arnold, Rudyard Kipling. And he loved the attention of political figures, presidents and prime ministers, whom he advised in lengthy letters on matters of statecraft.
Carnegie's passion for peace bordered on fanaticism. He found the U.S. Civil War abhorrent, but managed to speculate successfully. Later, this committed pacifist was able to rise above his principles to manufacture steel armor for American battleships.
But the Spanish-American War and the Boer War for Britons sent Carnegie actively into the Anti-Imperialist League. He wrote confused letters to the New York Tribune: "Imperialism has received its first blow … The Republic may yet be saved." He plead with President William McKinley, then denounced him. He met secretly with William Jennings Bryan. He found Theodore Roosevelt "capable of great mischief" but later became a Roosevelt Progressive before breaking with him over increases in the U.S. Navy.
Perhaps his greatest mistake in judgement came with Kaiser Willhelm of Germany. "I dined with him twice," wrote Carnegie. "A wonderful man, so bright, humorous, and with a sweet smile." Carnegie saluted this Imperial Majesty as "the foremost apostle of peace in our time."
As a 75th birthday present for himself, he endowed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The quixotic old agnostic then gave millions to create the Church Peace Union. But his timing was terrible. At Carnegie's urging, the religious leaders scheduled their conference in Germany for August, 1914. The Great War began. And churchmen escaped on the last train to France.
Carnegie lived to see the Armistice and died gently at the age of 84. He had provided for his wife and daughter, but had given away most of his enormous fortune. Many of his endowments continue his good and worldly work, among them the Carnegie Institution of Washington with its headquarters on 16th Street, a short walk from the White House. It was in an office there that Vannevar Bush began his work for the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb.

Bart McDowell is the author of "Inside the Vatican," published by the National Geographic Society.

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